Monday, November 11, 2013

World War I: The Blame Game

Although in many cases it accomplishes little to nothing, people do seem to endlessly enjoy playing the ‘blame game’. For monarchists, who often enjoy it as much as anyone, there is probably no better occasion than World War One. This is understandable since, while there were republics in the Americas, China, Portugal and France, monarchy was still the rule rather than the exception before the First World War whereas after the conflict republicanism became dominant on the continent with the fall of the German, Russian and Austro-Hungarian empires, the creation of new republics in Czechoslovakia, Poland, Finland and the Baltic States and which saw, eventually, the fall of the Ottoman Empire in the Middle East. The world was a much more monarchist place before 1914 and a much more republican place after 1918 and so many monarchists go looking for a guilty party to blame. Some blame the Central Powers, some blame the Allies, some blame Austria, some blame Germany and some even blame the United States which seems rather odd considering that the United States did not join the war until the very last stages of the conflict. Some blame “Prussian militarism” and some blame British paranoia over the growing colonial and industrial competition Germany represented.

There seems to be no end to it. Personally, my position has always been that in the case of World War One, the blame game is useless. I say this for two primary reasons; because there was so much blame to go around in starting the conflict that no one side or even one country can be held to be more guilty than any other and secondly because, I believe, once started, there was no possible way in which it could have ended well. In the first half of the conflict, there was still too much fury and hope for victory for either side to stop and in the second half, both sides had lost too much to agree to make peace without having something to show for it. However, let us take each of these points in order. In looking at the major participants in the outbreak of war in August of 1914 there is scarcely a country involved that does not share some blame for causing the conflict to happen in the first place or to spread to catastrophic proportions. The only truly innocent country involved was the unfortunate Kingdom of Belgium which simply happened to be a victim of geography. The Belgians truly had no choice but to fight and the noble King Albert I could not have acted other than he did for his own honor and that of his country. However, aside from Belgium, there is plenty of guilt to go around.

Starting with the spark that set the whole thing off we have the Kingdom of Serbia. Truly, if there was one completely guilty party in this whole affair it was the murderer Gavrilo Princip who assassinated two innocent people. Putting aside their status, these were a loving husband and wife, parents of three children, murdered in cold blood. Moreover, the Archduke was a man who wanted to do better by the Slavic peoples of Austria-Hungary. He had clashed with those in the Austrian army who advocated war with Serbia and there was no love lost between him and the Hungarians because of his desire to include the Slavic peoples in the power-sharing of the Austrians and Hungarians. Serbian nationalists hated the Archduke not because they feared he would make things worse for the Serbs but specifically because they feared he would make things better. Serbia must bear some blame for this, for the government connections with the secret society that carried out the assassination (which has been proven) and for the hatred that was prompted against Austria-Hungary by the proponents of a “Greater Serbia” that paved the way for this kind of mentality and the act of terrorism it produced. Although the weakest of the guilty parties, Serbia nonetheless has blood on its hands.

Secondly, we have Austria-Hungary. In as much as it was the heir to the Austrian throne that was murdered, Austria was undoubtedly the victim and not the aggressor in the earliest stage of what became the conflagration. However, the Austrian government had plenty to do with turning a single tragedy into a war (the Hungarians had little to nothing to do with it as the Hungarian government had always opposed war with Serbia or any action that would bring more Slavs into the Dual-Empire). It was Austria which issued the ultimatum to Serbia that no one thought for a moment Serbia could possibly agree to. Yet, even when Serbia shocked Europe and agreed to almost every demand, it did not dissuade those who thought a war with Serbia was vital to the survival of Austria-Hungary. Several efforts to have talks for maintaining peace were spurned and the Austrians failed to take Russia seriously, confident as they were in German support. However, it must also be said that Emperor Francis Joseph himself was no villain in all of this and only signed the declaration of war against Serbia after being told (falsely) that the Serbians had made the first move and attacked Austria. While Austria cannot be blamed in any way for World War One as a whole, there is no question that many in the Austrian government were responsible and proudly so for starting a war with Serbia.

Next, we have the Russian Empire. This is an extremely complex case as Russia actually tried very hard to prevent the escalation of the crisis, was always comparatively honest about her actions and motivations and yet, in the end, it was Russia that turned what would have been a localized, Balkan conflict into a European and thus World War. Probably too much has been made about Russian support for Serbia as a factor in the start of World War One. It is true that Russia was eager to reassert herself as a major power. Russia had been humbled militarily by the Empire of Japan and then humbled diplomatically by the Empire of Austria-Hungary over the annexation of Bosnia. However, the Russians were under no illusions as to what a war with Austria and Germany would mean and it was Russia, while honor-bound to stand as the defender of the Orthodox Slavs, which urged Serbia to accept the Austrian ultimatum and it was this urging by Russia, probably more than anything else, that influenced Serbia to agree to most of the Austrian demands. Here again we also see that it was the monarch, Emperor Nicholas II, who was least enthusiastic about going to war. He first ordered a partial mobilization against Austria-Hungary only to be met with hysterics from his officials at which point he reluctantly agreed to a general mobilization. Russia was not acting out of malice or bloodlust but, nonetheless, it was Russian intervention in what had, until that point, been an Austro-Serbian dispute that widened the conflict to include France and Germany. It seems all the more a pity given what eventually became of the Russian Empire and because the security nor interests of Russia were actually under threat.

Of all the major players, of course, it was the German Empire that ended up being forced to take all the blame for the outbreak of World War One and no one figure more than Kaiser Wilhelm II. That, as many would later admit, was and is totally absurd. Germany was absolutely not solely responsible for the war and the Kaiser actually went to great lengths to try to stop it. That being said, Germany was likewise not completely innocent in the spreading of the conflict either. It is true that Germany only mobilized after Russia did the same against Austria but it had been the Germans who had given the famous “blank check” to Austria-Hungary but, more than that, it was German knowledge which most condemned German actions. The Kaiser admitted that with the Serbian response to the Austrian ultimatum, there was very little justification for war and the delay in mobilizing against Russia was openly said by the German chancellor as simply a way to lay all blame at the Russian doorstep in an effort to keep Britain neutral by portraying Russia as the aggressor. Again, however, at the last minute, the Kaiser tried to avert a larger war by seizing on the possibility of Franco-British neutrality and ordering his forces to abandon the western offensive and shift to the east. His top general, “Moltke the Younger” simply defied him and said this was not possible. In fact, it was possible as the German plan called for all forces to be moved east after France was defeated anyway and after the war the supervisor of the German railroad network wrote an entire book explaining just how it was completely possible for Germany to have called off the attack on France and Belgium and concentrate solely on Russia. It is also true that the demands made to guarantee French neutrality, such as stationing German troops in French fortresses, was something no French government could ever be expected to agree to.

The French, however, were certainly not innocent either. Ever since the humiliation of 1870 France had been preparing for another war with Germany and they were determined that their would be another war and the entire French strategy was geared toward the offensive. France also had the least reason, other than Britain, for getting involved at all. On the continent of Europe one can hardly be more removed from Serbia than France. If Austria invaded Serbia, if Russia invaded Hungary or if Germany invaded Russia, none of it threatened France in any way. France was, of course, allied to Russia but their alliance stated that if either party was attacked by Germany, Italy or Austria-Hungary then the other would go to war. However, the fact of the matter is that neither Austria or Germany had attacked Russia nor did either have any original intention to. Germany became involved only for fear that Russia would attack Austria-Hungary and even when war did break out, it was Russia that invaded Germany and not the reverse. Yet, one of the most guilty of guilty parties on the French side was the French ambassador to Russia Maurice Paléologue who, despite the French government attempting to drawback somewhat, worked feverishly to urge the Russians to take action against Austria, stand firm against Germany and basically do everything possible to provoke the spread of the conflict from the Balkans to the rest of Europe. If Russia is to bear the blame for escalating the crisis into a world war, the French ambassador must be included for acting on his own authority to harass and cajole the Russians toward taking that fateful step. And, again, at any time France could have justifiably said that the terms of the alliance did not apply, that there was no need for Russia to mobilize against Austria and no need for France to mobilize against Germany but they chose not to. Because far too many in France were determined for there to be another war with Germany, to erase the humiliation of 1870 and regain Alsace-Lorraine from the German Empire. In fact, given the reluctance of the Tsar to go to war at all, it would not be an extremely great stretch to say that France was as much if not more to blame for the localized conflict becoming a world war than anyone else was.

Finally, we have Great Britain whose guilt, perhaps more than any other power, resides mostly in what Britain failed to do rather than what Britain actually did. If one wanted to get really specific about playing the blame game with the British, it might be difficult since one of the problems in Britain was that their left hand didn’t always know what their right hand was doing. At times the British tried to appear both aloof from continental matters and, at others, as a force for peace in solving European conflicts. The problem with even the proposals Britain did make for peace talks to head-off a European war was that the Central Powers were not inclined to view Britain as an honest and impartial broker. In the years preceding the war Britain seemed gripped by an anti-German hysteria that exaggerated potential problems out of all proportion to reality. Much of this stemmed from British frustration at Germany becoming an economic and colonial competitor to Great Britain and building a High Seas Fleet that grew to be second in size only to the Royal Navy. However, if one can put the hysteria aside, the facts are clear that the German colonial empire was nowhere close to rivaling that of Great Britain or even France (the second largest colonial power) and the Imperial German Navy, while the second largest in the world, was still less than half the size of the massive Royal Navy. Even when it came to industrial and economic competition, Germany was nowhere near as great a threat to British profits as was the United States.

Great Britain had no real reason to get involved in the war breaking out on the continent. British security nor the British Empire were directly threatened and by Britain getting involved, this ensured that the war would spread to Africa, the Middle East and Asia. It is also unlikely in the extreme that the United States would have ever joined the war had it not been for Britain. The British also may well have been able to stop the conflict from unfolding if men like Sir Edward Grey had not been so vague in communications with Germany. It must also be said that, while certainly noble, Britain was not technically under any obligation to go to war over the violation of Belgian neutrality. The treaty gave the option but not an obligation. However, if Britain had made it perfectly clear to the Germans early on that they would stand shoulder-to-shoulder with France and that Britain would declare war if the Germans entered Belgium, it may well have given Berlin enough pause to step back from the brink and convince Austria to do the same. However, the British never made their intentions clear until it was too late, when German armies were already massing on the Franco-Belgian border and offensive plans had already been put into effect. Here again, one figure who certainly cannot be blamed is King George V. While he was certainly of the opinion that the conflict was all the fault of the Kaiser, it is also true that the King himself had no idea just how bound his own military was to defending the French. Secret agreements were in place that not everyone in the halls of power in London, including the King, knew anything about. The Royal Navy was key to this and the man in charge there, Winston Churchill, was just as consumed by anti-German sentiment as Sir Edward Grey and just as anxious for Britain to go to war. Lloyd George could have stopped it, but for his own desire for power, tipped the scales in favor of war. Belgium was simply an excuse Lloyd George used to justify his decision which is all the more ironic given that Churchill had plans prepared to blockade the Belgian coast even if Germany did not invade; thus Britain secretly tied herself to France regardless of Belgium and even if the Germans had not violated Belgian neutrality, the British would have. Grey and George were at least troubled by the oncoming war (Churchill was jubilant) once it was too late to stop it but neither had been willing to stop it when they had the chance.

So, whether one looks at Austria, Russia, Germany, France or Britain one can find plenty of blame to go around. Not a single monarch, it should be remembered, wanted war and yet, thanks to the politicians that surrounded them all, that is what the world got. Once it had begun, there really was no reasonable outcome other than total disaster. Some have argued that if the peace proposals of Emperor Charles of Austria had been accepted, all would have been well. Yet, not only were the Allies opposed to such an offer but Germany was as well so it seems unlikely that anything would have come of it. Both sides had lost far too much and, particularly for the Allies, too many promises had been made to win more countries to their cause, for there to have been a ‘peace without victors’. Others have said that if the United States had only stayed out of the war, Germany would have won or else both sides would have exhausted themselves and been forced to sue for peace. We can never know for sure what might have happened, but I tend to be rather skeptical of that line of thinking which usually comes from the “blame America first” crowd. It is possible, but given how few Americans had arrived by the time of the ‘Kaiser’s Offensive’ it is hard for me to believe that a relatively few, inexperienced Americans were such super-warriors as to have played the crucial role in halting the attack and saving the Allies. America came into the war so late and was only really fighting in real strength at the very end when Germany had already seen her allies defeated or on the brink of collapse, her last hope for an offensive victory dashed, her population near total starvation and with British and French tanks proving an increasingly pivotal weapon on the battlefield I tend to think the Allies would have won even if the AEF had stayed home.

And again, what would it have solved anyway? Austria-Hungary was already doomed given the extensive promises the French and British had already made to the Czechs, Romanians and Serbs. The Russian Empire collapsed before American involvement, communism would have still spread its poison into Germany, precipitating the collapse of the German Empire. In fact, if the war had dragged on longer, the result may not have been a peace without victors but a total collapse of Germany into hunger-driven revolution, a repeat of tragic Russia. The Ottoman Empire was already doomed and its carve-up between Britain and France agreed upon. And, to go back to America again, if there is blame on that front, Germany must share some with Britain as well. The British worked feverishly to get America involved (not that it stopped them from blaming America for doing so when it was over) but Germany played a hand with the infamous Zimmermann Telegram which truly must go down in history as one of the most stupendously idiotic foreign policy decisions by any country in the history of the world. If Zimmermann himself had not admitted to sending it, I would have been inclined to disbelieve it simply on the grounds that no one in Germany could possibly have been that completely stupid.

The peace, it should go without saying, could have been handled much, much better. Even the preachy, sanctimonious American President Wilson later admitted that he really had no idea what he was doing when he strutted over to Europe blathering about “self-determination”. Well, okay, thanks for admitting to screwing everything up after the fact -that really helps. Yet, once again, so much of what was botched was botched long before the Allied leaders met at Versailles. France and Britain had already made promises to the Poles, the Czechs, the Romanians and so on. This is why I have always maintained that the disaster of the Great War did not come in 1918 or 1919, not with Versailles or Trianon but with the outbreak of war in the first place in that fateful August of 1914. The disaster was not how it turned out but that it ever happened at all, because once the nations of Europe started down that road there was really no way out that did not end in disaster. Even for the winners, it still ultimately ended in disaster though it would take another, even bigger, world war for everyone to realize it. This is also why the blame-game is a rather pointless exercise. No one had their hands clean, everyone made mistakes and everyone suffered for them. There was simply no one, guilty party who was truly responsible. All the major powers of Europe were guilty in part and the disaster was caused not by one or the other but by the fact that in 1914 almost the entirety of western civilization decided to start killing each other. Empires collapsed, monarchs fell, political extremism ran rampant and in so many ways the world has been a much uglier place ever since.


  1. It seems quite simple to me.
    Princip's fault, for shooting an innocent man and his pregnant wife.
    Why do republicans blame the monarchies of Europe for the war when it was clearly due this one man's pathetically evil actions? Things could not really have gone differently to how they did after the murder.

  2. WWI stand alone in my book as being the only war in history that was destructive enough to be shivered at. The Ottoman Empire, once the crown Jewel of the Islamic world, was all but destroyed during the war, and afterwards, it collapsed without much of a fight. Had it not been for Suad and Zog, it would have been even worse! Perhaps I attribute to much to the war itself, but had I lived in that time I would certainly have volunteered under the Ottomans.

  3. With all due respect, Thomas Richard, MM points out multiple ways it could have gone differently!


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